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HIGH PROFILE: Sam Sanders was the guy who made it happen — for thousands of deserving Arkansans

by Frank Fellone | February 3, 2019 at 4:30 a.m.
“I’m reluctant to brag but I will. It ain’t bragging if you’ve done it. It [AEDD] would not be there if it wasn’t for me.” - Sam Claiborne Sanders

A picture is worth … 97 lives. The framed picture is black and white, and hangs above the reception desk at the old McRae Elementary School on West 18th Street in North Little Rock.

The lives belong to the children, from infant to age 5, who were at the school on a gray day in January. All those children are developmentally disabled, and because of this place they have a chance.

So was the girl in the picture — developmentally disabled, that is. Her chances were less. Much less.

Born in 1953, Sammie Gail Sanders passed away in 1971, never having spoken, never having rolled over, spending her difficult early years at home. She was one of the first residents of the Arkansas Children’s Colony in Conway, and died at the Alexander Human Development Center.

When she was born, the support system for such children and their families was, realistically, nonexistent, says her father, Sam C. Sanders.

That was why, with four more children at home, Sanders in 1964 left a stable job as a field representative with the Arkansas Heart Association and took a pay cut to become executive director of the Arkansas Association for Retarded Children. And then in 1971 executive director of Special Olympics and executive director of Arkansas Enterprises for the Developmentally Disabled, from which he retired in 2002.

“He was there in the beginning,” Georganna Imhoff Huddleston, current chief executive officer and executive director of AEDD, says during an interview at the school, which is now the Sammie Gail Sanders Children’s Learning Center.

“He was instrumental in making sure families with children with special needs got services.

“We do the most we can for everyone we can,” Huddleston adds. “That would be Sam’s quote.”

The full quote is from theologian John Wesley, a founder of Methodism: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”

Sanders himself says as much in a conversation at his home in Little Rock, in the company of two of his grown children, Scott Sanders of Cabot and Suzanne Schutter of Little Rock. Sam and wife Mary’s other children are Clay Sanders of Little Rock and Catherine Westbrook of Maumelle. There are nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

“I love every one of them,” Sam Sanders says.

The family calling goes on, too. Suzanne has worked at AEDD for 33 years. Her son, Taylor Wisdom, is a special education teacher in the Springdale School District. Catherine and Clay work with clients as well through AEDD, to provide community-based services and self-help skills.

Sanders remains enthusiastic about AEDD and all the good it does for everyone it can. Sanders also remains confident of his place in the history of the organization.

“I’m reluctant to brag but I will. It ain’t bragging if you’ve done it. It [AEDD] would not be there if it wasn’t for me.”

NEVER CAME OFF THE FIELD

Before Sammie Gail Sanders and the mission she inspired, there was football.

Scott believes his father may have played more collegiate football than anyone in Arkansas: two years at Arkansas Tech, a year at Little Rock Junior College — where his coach was Jimmy Karam, who in 1949 led the team to a national junior college championship — and two years at Ouachita Baptist College (now University).

Sam Sanders was an end, 6 feet tall, 170 pounds.

Offensive or defensive?

Yes.

This was back when football players lined up on both sides of the ball. “He never came off the field,” Scott says.

Sam Sanders was All-Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference at Tech in 1947, and starred in the 1949 Battle of the Ravine between Ouachita and Henderson State College (now University). Ouachita was down 14-0 with seven minutes to play when Sanders caught a fourth-down pass that sustained a drive that led to a score. Ouachita subsequently attempted three onside kicks, Sanders recovered all three, and the Tigers prevailed 17-14.

Sam and Mary married in 1951 and Sammie Gail came along in 1953. At first, she seemed a normal baby. But she had a seizure, and the medical news was devastating. She was found to have profound congenital birth defects. Sammie could not talk, could not walk, had to be fed by spoon.

Sammie died when Scott was 12.

“We didn’t know any better,” he says. “My memory is that Sammie was our sister, and we would take exciting weekly trips to Conway. I got the root beer in a frosted mug on the old Conway highway. We befriended a couple of mentally retarded kids at the colony because we saw them every week.”

Before the children’s colony, the family would take Sammie Gail to Sunday services at Antioch Missionary Baptist Church on Stagecoach Road, where Sam is still a deacon. “They accepted Sammie Gail,” he says. “Big time.”

Sanders says he was persuaded to take the job at AARC by Herschel Friday, who also had a developmentally disabled child. Friday was a Little Rock lawyer, of the firm Friday, Eldredge & Clark. Friday died in a plane crash in 1994, but the firm still does legal work for AEDD. Friday is still listed as a member of AEDD’s board of directors.

Sanders’ task was to organize AARC county chapters to advocate for the developmentally disabled. He’d go to county seats and seek out the county judge and county health nurses and ask which local residents should be involved. “I would say, ‘Don’t point me to them, take me to them.’”

By 1970, Sanders had a change in attitude.

“If we wanted to survive, we had to provide services, and provide them we did. It never would have happened if I hadn’t got that attitude. From advocacy to providing services — that’s exactly right.”

With a $5,000 grant in hand, Sanders found an old grocery store at 12th and Welch streets in Little Rock, and opened a workshop with nine clients. Parental relief, he called it.

But then AEDD clients started to work for pay, putting labels on the back of books for Leisure Arts, the publisher of crafts books.

“It meant the world to them to get a check,” Suzanne says.

“It made them feel like rocket scientists or brain surgeons,” Scott says. “It was awesome.”

Clients are still working today, putting labels on cans of pepper spray or sorting rubber bands for a manufacturer in Hot Springs.

“It’s good, worthy work,” Scott says.

AEDD later moved into providing low-income housing for the elderly and disabled in Beebe, Lonoke and Mount Ida.

“I said at the time that people are going to think we’re building an empire,” Sam Sanders says. “I told the staff I didn’t care, let’s build an empire. We were just trying to provide a service, a different service.”

“If we wanted to survive, we had to provide services, and provide them we did. It never would have happened if I hadn’t got that attitude. From advocacy to providing services — that’s exactly right.” - Sam Claiborne Sanders
“If we wanted to survive, we had to provide services, and provide them we did. It never would have happened if I hadn’t got that attitude. From advocacy to providing services — that’s exactly right.” - Sam Claiborne Sanders

LIFETIME ADVOCATE

A picture is worth … a thousand memories.

This next picture is also black and white. It was shot in the late 1970s or early 1980s, part of a promotion for a bank that was once a pillar of Little Rock commerce but long gone now, merged, consolidated, absorbed by a bigger bank.

Sam Sanders is in the picture, white hair and coat and tie. He has his arms around two young men, also nattily dressed. They hold his hands. All are smiling.

Does Sanders remember these clients from so long ago? Of course he does. One is Bernie Baker. The other Marvin Daniels.

The photo tops a plaque that describes Sanders as a “lifetime advocate for children and adults with developmental disabilities.”

The advocacy goes on — exuberantly — at the Sammie Gail Sanders Children’s Learning Center. Who wouldn’t be happy here? There’s playtime, sometimes cleverly disguised physical therapy, learning, lunch and naps. Today the kid count is 97, picked up by the center’s fleet of vans. Kids also get occupational and speech therapy. One preschooler is working hard on identifying objects in pictures, and he’s mighty proud of his progress.

Huddleston is here to show off the center, but mostly to talk about Sam Sanders, for whom she worked for 13 years starting in 1990. Their first meeting was unconventional.

They met at a T-ball game. Huddleston’s son had been hit on the hand by a bat, and she saw a nice man leave the bleachers, get some ice and help the boy. It was Sanders. Huddleston was selling real estate at the time, but Sam Sanders is nothing if not persuasive.

“By the end of the summer he had hired me.”

Huddleston was Sanders’ assistant and office manager, the nonprofit’s 13th employee. She was so busy she kept dresses in her office to wear to evening events Sanders “forgot to tell me about.”

“It was hard back then,” Huddleston says. “We didn’t have a lot of money.”

AEDD and its affiliated operations now serve more than 550 people, with about 350 employees, and annual expenditures of more than $14 million.

One of Sanders’ goals was for AEDD to have a preschool for the developmentally disabled. They approached North Little Rock’s mayor at the time, Pat Hays.

“He immediately, within the hour, had Joe Smith printing off lists of properties,” Huddleston says. Smith is now the city’s mayor.

AEDD eventually chose an old school, which was donated by the North Little Rock School District, she said. The school opened in 2002.

The building was in bad shape.

“You could literally walk through the walls” of the back part of the building. “Sam arranged the financing and we turned it into this school.”

One word to describe Sam Sanders, please.

“Fearless.”

“Let’s just say he was in his late 30s, had a job and a paycheck and all those children and a wife. He quit that job to start this movement. I wouldn’t be that courageous.”

Sanders, she says, is ambitious, determined and “passionate for families with children with developmental disabilities. He’s the master of following up and being thorough.”

Oh, yeah, “and charming.”

What did Huddleston learn from Sanders?

How to be accountable. How to spend wisely. How to know clients’ needs. How to communicate AEDD’s success. How to be a self-starter.

“But the No. 1 thing was to be patient with people, to deal with conflict, and to be compassionate to clients and families, to know what they go through. Sam went through that. I haven’t.”

Robert Johnson has known Sam Sanders since the 1970s, when Johnson was looking for work and Sanders headed AARC. Johnson got the job over breakfast at Shoney’s on University Avenue and spent most of his career working with the developmentally disabled. When he wasn’t, he always found his way back. “God had different ideas than I did and I’m thankful for that. It was an incredible blessing.”

“He’s bigger than life,” Johnson says of Sanders. “But that’s the kind of personality it took for the movement to have happened.

“Out of his heartache and pain came an incalculable blessing, and all of these people in Arkansas have benefited.

“Out of the storm, a blessing.”

Johnson’s territory for AARC was southwest Arkansas.

“Sam’s phrase as I walked out the door was ‘Make it happen.’ It was this drive that made it happen. He was on a holy mission to fund services for the developmentally disabled. There was no one he could not or would not talk to. Sam was a polished and confident man who was equal to the people he was talking to,” whether they were parents or legislators, governors or businessmen.

Johnson described Sanders as contagious.

“He would ask ‘Who can help us with this? He needs to be our newest and bestest friend.’”

A change for the better, Johnson said, is that many developmentally disabled people can now stay at home.

“Did Sam accomplish all this by himself? No, but he was a difference maker who showed what any of us can accomplish if we focus on something bigger than we are.”

Johnson paused, and explained what it’s like to work with the developmentally disabled.

“This is a heart deal; this ain’t a head deal.”

Back at the Sanders home, over coffee and cookies, Sam said he still keeps in touch with AEDD, doing as much good as he can for as long as he can.

Son Scott knows this.

“We never really viewed him as retired. He’s still pretty close to it.”

At the other end of the couch, daughter Suzanne explains:

“It’s his baby.”

SELF PORTRAIT

Sam Sanders

DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Feb. 14, 1927, Little Rock

BIGGEST ACCOMPLISHMENT: Putting these three programs into existence — Special Olympics, Arkansas Association for Retarded Citizens and Arkansas Enterprises for the Developmentally Disabled.

I KNEW I WAS AN ADULT WHEN: I went to work the first time, for the Philip Morris Co. before graduation at Ouachita Baptist College (now University). Jimmy Karam and I became close. He had a friend come to town from Philip Morris. He offered me a cigarette and I told him I didn’t smoke. I told him I guessed that ended that interview. He said some of their best salesmen don’t smoke. It was something to work for a national organization before you got your college diploma.

THE GUESTS AT MY FANTASY DINNER PARTY: My wife, Mary; Herschel Friday, who did legal work for us for free; my grandfather, John Lee; and my four children. I couldn’t find four people who I love more or who love me more.

MY FIRST JOB: Philip Morris Co., selling their products in 1951. My territory was Arkansas. Philip Morris sponsored I Love Lucy back then.

THE BEST ADVICE I EVER GOT: The truth of the matter is I have to come back to my wife, when she encouraged me to go from engagement to marriage.

THE WORST ADVICE I EVER GOT: I can truthfully say I didn’t get any bad advice or I couldn’t have built AEDD.

ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Aggressive

Print Headline: HIGH PROFILE: Sam Sanders was the guy who made it happen — for thousands of deserving Arkansans

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